No one can be too healthy, right? This may be hard for the general population to grasp, but many health professionals believe the real answer is yes.
In fact, there is a term for an unhealthy obsession with healthy food known as orthorexia. Read on to learn what this “health obsession” is, along with eating habits and other symptoms to watch out for.
What Is Orthorexia?
Derived within the past 25 years, orthorexia is a mental illness that encompasses a health obsession of eating only clean and pure food to achieve ideal health. However, in pursuit of this optimum, overall health suffers because the concept of health is multifaceted – not only determined by food or even weight.
Focusing on eating healthy, nutrient-dense food is not a problem on its own. But, when it becomes the sole focus of one’s life, interfering with relationships, social obligations, and other pursuits, it can turn into one.
Yet, it is difficult to qualify orthorexia because it can look slightly different from one person to the next. While there are certainly universal symptoms (discussed below), the specifics may differ. For example, one struggling person may have a list of 20 foods they refuse to eat while another may only eat 20 food choices total.
Each person’s definition of ideal health differs. Therefore, this disorder will be experienced differently by everyone as well.
Although it does not have its own category is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, an index that defines mental health disorders, it falls under Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorders within it. Meaning, orthorexia is considered a mental health illness that requires intervention and management.
Signs and Symptoms of Orthorexia
As mentioned, orthorexia can look and feel completely different from one person to another, similar to all eating disorders in reality. Much of society possesses a very narrow picture of what someone with an eating disorder or disordered eating looks like, let alone how they are experienced within. This is one reason not enough people with orthorexia seek treatment or help, and it can make it difficult for loved ones to recognize when orthorexia strikes.
Orthorexia shares many symptoms with the more common eating disorder known as anorexia nervosa, including physical, mental, and emotional hindrances. At their core, orthorexia and anorexia differ because the former aims to achieve pure health with little regard for weight. The latter, on the other hand, is unhealthily obsessed with weight and terrified of fat.
Nonetheless, there is still much crossover because sufferers of either of these eating disorders usually restrict food intake severely enough to elicit undesirable health consequences. Thus, the most common signs and symptoms of orthorexia include:
- Compulsively checking food labels and ingredient lists
- Increasing concern about the health of foods and ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups
- Inability to eat anything except certain foods deemed healthy or pure
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours a day thinking about food
- Showing high levels of stress or anxiety when safe or healthy foods are not available
- Obsessively following food or healthy lifestyle social media channels
- Bringing own food to social gatherings
- Spending hours everyday meal prepping and/or planning
- Refusal to eat food not prepared by themself
- Sudden or steady weight loss
- *Body image concerns may or may not be present
In addition, if orthorexia progresses to the severest degree, all the symptoms of starvation may be present as well. Some warning signs of starvation include:
- Hair loss and brittle nails
- Translucent, gray skin
- Slow heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Dizziness and fainting
- Loss of hunger and fullness cues
- Lethargy and insomnia
- Severe weight loss
- Protruding bones
- Weak muscles
- Death in the worst cases
Though not exhaustive, the above encompass the most obvious signs of the emerging disorder. If you or someone you know is struggling with the signs and symptoms listed, it would be a good and safe idea to seek help from a professional. This may include from a licensed therapist or dietitian.
Health Obsession and Mental Stress
It is important to recognize that orthorexia usually begins as a simply healthful pursuit. Often, someone has good intentions to begin eating more healthfully, meaning more nutrient-dense.
But when eating healthy turns into a compulsive obsession, orthorexia arises. This unhealthy obsession can lead to substantial mental stress.
Like already mentioned, it does not qualify as its own mental disorder according to the official manual. Rather, it falls under a different eating struggle in the manual, but mental stress still results.
The all encompassing nature of orthorexia can consume a person, interfering with all facets of life until the only purpose of life is to eat healthy. Orthorexia can alter relationships, connections, careers, social gatherings, holidays, and so much more. Moreover, it can cause someone to only grocery shop at certain stores, eat at very specific times, always eat alone, and ultimately interfere with all other obligations and endeavors.
Obviously, this leads to substantial mental distress. It is heightened by the fact that society praises healthy eating, often encouraging extreme measures like cutting out carbohydrates. As such, sufferers of orthorexia have to battle the confusion of eating healthfully but not too healthy.
Everyone suffering with orthorexia should and deserves to receive proper treatment to help unblur the ambiguous line.
The Bottom Line
It is, indeed, possible to eat too healthfully. When healthy eating patterns become compulsive and obsessive, orthorexia develops and can majorly interfere with one’s life. This disorder can infiltrate all areas of life and lead to devastating symptoms if left untreated.
Even though society praises healthy eating (often to an unhealthy degree) this disorder is not glamorous and requires intervention. No one has to live with any type of eating disorder!
Orthorexia. Nationaleatingdisorders.org. Published February 26, 2017. http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia.
Gaudiani J. What is Orthorexia Nervosa? — Gaudiani Clinic. Gaudianiclinic.com. Published June 13, 2018. https://www.gaudianiclinic.com/gaudiani-clinic-blog/2018/6/13/what-is-orthorexia-nervosa.